The Knave and the Bold
Here are a few excerpts from The Knave and the Bold: An Amateur’s Experiences in Superheroing, by Harvey Jerkwater.
From the Introduction:
“Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”
Quarterbacking the Detroit Lions. Pitching to the National League All-Stars. Getting punched out by boxing legend Archie Moore. Playing goalie for the Boston Bruins.
George Plimpton did it all, and wrote brilliant and hilarious volumes of participatory journalism about each experience. Thus, I blame him.
Him, and a lot of brandy.
It began a year ago, as I reread his classic Paper Lion. Midway through the book, and a third of the way through a bottle of Penedès brandy, an idea entered my head. The idea was clearly mine, as it was a bad one.
Plimpton wrote about the spectacle of sports from the perspective of the average man. What would it be like for an ordinary fellow to be an NFL quarterback, if only for a brief time? It fires the imagination just to think about it. I knew I had to follow in the footsteps of Plimpton. I would pull every string I could and investigate every lead it took to arrange an “everyman” participatory experience of my own.
With the Justice League.
It wasn’t easy. Nor was wrestling with a giant snake in the Shenandoah Valley.
But I get ahead of myself.
From Chapter Two, “Defying Death and Good Taste”
“Are you sure?” my editor asked. “You don’t have any superpowers.”
“A lot of the greats don’t,” I replied. “C’mon, Ed. Imagine the boost in circulation when you publish the excerpts.” I replied. “It’ll be the biggest issue of The New Yorker in ten years.”
“It’s been done,” Ed replied. “Altered Egos?” He referred to a similar stunt in the Forties by a novelist with the unfortunate name of “John Law.” Law donned a pair of tights, took a few high-tech gizmos, and became “The Tarantula” to both fight crime and write a book, the aforementioned Altered Egos.
Knowing he would bring it up, I had an answer prepared: “In the forties, three-quarters of the super-people were regular guys in tights and masks,” I explained. “Now they’re demigods. Look, Law wrote about guys with good right hooks and tight pants. I’m talking about guys more powerful than locomotives. In tight pants. What I’d see would be a whole different world than what Law found.
“Besides, Altered Egos was a novel. Semi-fictional. This would be straight-up reportage. People want it.
"Imagine the ancillaries, Ed. Imagine them.”
Ed pinched the bridge of his nose and stared at the floor, his habit when thinking. I considered this a good sign and kept going. “Do you really need another profile of a major politician? Every magazine does that, and you know people don't care. This stunt will touch the Walter Mitty part of every reader in America.”
"You'll be killed," he said, not looking up.
"Nonsense! I have years of martial arts training and I'm strong as an ox!" I replied. "Besides, the League won't let me get killed. Bad for publicity."
A moment later, he let go of his nose and said, “You’ll have to sign a waiver. If you get your head blown off or devolved into an ape-man, I don’t want your wife suing us.”
I signed the waiver with a flourish and immediately headed to a nearby costume shop. I had a name in mind, a name that would strike both terror and awe: The Chromium Pugilist.
Now, I thought, to develop The Look.
From Chapter Four, “The Secret Origin of the Chromium Pugilist!”
Constructing the proper superhero suit is a challenge, particularly for a fellow of my peculiar physical gifts. Built, as I am, like a fire hydrant that has abandonded itself to the joys of doughnuts and television, my dignity would not long survive in the traditional spandex superhero suit.
“Armor. You need armor,” Stuart Quinn told me. Quinn, an expert in the field, held up a breastplate. His shop, known for its super-suit replicas, was not busy that afternoon. He handed the breastplate to me. “At the very least, your paunch’ll be hidden by this.”
“Paunch?” I replied, sucking in my stomach and dropping my voice an octave. “I am in peak physical condition!”
Stuart laughed. “A gently rounded peak, yeah.” He later assuaged my pride by providing me with an outsized codpiece. “That’ll intimidate ‘em,” he said.
From Chapter Five, “Charm and a Caveman”
How does one get a cameo spot on the Justice League?
Ed and I considered a few avenues. He himself had a degree of pull with the famous organization. Ed not only coordinated three charity events for Wonder Woman, he was on good terms with Superman. Ed was instrumental in saving Superman’s young friend, Jimmy Olsen, from the clutches of Mok-Turath, King of the Astro-Cavemen.
From Chapter Seven, “Ramen Noodles in Outer Spaaaaace!”
The armature servos of the trainer robot whined as the Batman shut it down. Once the whines stopped, I was able to spread apart the claw clamped around my neck and free my body from the device’s grip. I collapsed to the floor like a sack of wet cement.
Despite his face being hidden behind smoked plexiglas, I could feel the Batman’s scowl at my ludicrous performance. Years of martial arts training, coupled with weeks of getting myself into shape for the job and weeks more gathering up crime-busting gadgets, led to an outcome worse than I’d predicted even in my nightmares. The only saving grace was that I hadn’t soiled myself.
Later, after the room stopped spinning and the glowing dots dancing in my field of vision shrank to the size of dimes, the Flash led me to the canteen of the Justice League satellite and handed me a printout. The sheets contained the results of the exercise. My eyes darted to the concluding equations and their result:
Combat Efficiency: 0.2%
Notable Combat Proficiencies: None
Preferred Mode of Combat: Falling Over
I let out a moan. The Flash laughed. “Don’t let it bother you, Harv,” he said. “We all gotta start somewhere.” I nodded. He went on, “For what it’s worth, you lasted longer than I thought you would.”
With a light “whump” noise created by his displacement of air at super-speed, he brought a cup of hot ramen noodles on the table in front of me. From my all-too-human perspective, it emerged from nowhere.
I lifted the cup and sipped, embarrassed and exhilarated. Huh. Ramen noodles and superheroes in outer space, I thought. Arching my back to work out stiffness brought about by a blow from a robot's fist, my inner monologue continued. Oh hell yes.
I then vomited with tremendous force, befouling the tile of the satellite canteen.
From Chapter Nine, “Dementia Pugilistica”
Two weeks in the JL satellite had taught me a great deal about the workings of a super-team, but the team’s continued denial of granting me first-hand exposure to action rankled. How could I write a book worth reading if I couldn’t face a super-villain myself?
To pass the time, I studied the team’s basic tactics manuals as well as their super-villain records. I’d predicted that such goodies would be fascinating reading. As per usual, I was wrong. For the most part, the archives read like tractor repair manuals translated from Portuguese to Russian to English. The Leaguers, save one, lacked any writing ability, and a few were downright awful. Green Lantern proved to be a hideous speller, and Aquaman? I cannot bear to think about Aquaman. The only good writer among the Leaguers was Superman.
(Searching the archives, the only evidence I could find of Superman not being utterly perfect at everything was a video recording of him singing along to a recording of “Radar Love” while on monitor duty. His singing voice was excellent; his air guitar, however, was atrocious.)
Boredom had overtaken me. By this point, I’d thoroughly explored the League museum. I’d acquainted myself with the teleportation tubes. I’d even learned a few breakdancing moves from archived video footage of the late Justice Leaguer Vibe. Locating a piece of cardboard upon which to spin was difficult, but I managed. The League has lacked skilled dancers, and I considered that perhaps by emulating Vibe I would be able to fill a niche.
As I worked on my pop-and-lock, I imagined hearing the Batman declare, “We’re doomed, unless we can find a superhero who can breakdance!” The odds were against it, of course, but who was to say for certain it would never happen? A bored mind can create many circumstances in which breakdancing would be vital to world peace.
Breakdancing, however, was not the answer. What saved my sanity and ingratiated me with the League was my discovery of a long-forgotten foosball table. The table was marked as a gift from a "Funky Flashman." Several Leaguers became enamored of the game. The Martian Manhunter in particular was taken with it.
During a hard-fought match with Aquaman, I heard an alarm go off and the computer announce a low-level situation. This time, I swore to myself, this time I will not be left behind. “Aquaman,” I said, letting him score a cheap goal as I spoke, “if it’s low-level, how about I come along?”
The king of the seas furrowed his brow. That he thought it a bad idea was plain. That the idea also amused him became clear as he spoke. “Sure, Harv. Let’s go,” he said, swallowing a snicker.
From Chapter Fourteen, “Sharper Than a Serpent God’s Tooth”
Rockingham County, Virginia, is a lovely place, a thinly-populated area along the northwest corner of the state, and part of the Shenandoah Valley. Its hills and pine forests possess a gentle majesty that lure vacationers from all around the region. That it contained a cell of Kobra’s snake cult should not be held against it.
Aquaman, Green Lantern, and myself, having dispatched an army of Kobra Kultists in a grove of pines (through super-strong fisticuffs, a giant green boxing glove summoned from a power ring, and yelling “get ‘em, guys!” in a cracking voice, respectively), took stock of the situation.
In hopes of salvaging my standing with the fellows, I offered up everything I could remember about Kobra outposts from the archives. The two men ignored me, and one could hardly blame them. A jittery chatterbox going on at length about the plumbing systems preferred by the Legions of the Dread Lord Naga-Naga could not be a help in a potentially lethal situation. After my nervous energy subsided, I shut my mouth. The two men failed to react to that, either.
“Oh, nice one,” I thought, my internal voice sounding like Moe Howard. “You finally get to go out on a mission, and all ya can do is talk about plumbing. Oh, and try not to pass out. Yeah, you’re a real asset.” While my inner Stooge berated me, Green Lantern took to the air and Aquaman knelt down to examine the gear of the unconscious Kultists.
I stepped back and tried to figure out how to help. My brain chugged into motion to evaluate what I knew from the JL records. Hmmm…uh…Kobra outposts are always…well-stocked with instant coffee, I recalled. Beyond that, I drew a blank. Nervous energy rose up again and caused me to smash together my steel gloves in a faux-boxing manner. The “k-tang!” noise made Aquaman flinch and cast a glance back at me. I shrugged a bit in embarrassment and left the grove.
I walked to the edge of a long stretch of road. Once I stopped, my inner monologue grew into a twin-voiced harangue. The Moe Howard voice continued to berate me as a poseur and a clown. But there was now a second voice, sounding like Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Cowher’s voice screamed at me “DO THIS! YOU CAN DO THIS! STAND UP AND DO IT!”
The pep talk got me to loosen up my shoulders and punch a little bit at the air. Yeah, I thought, I can do this. I’ve got what it takes. I know how this works. I began to hop in place. Oh yeah. I’m the man. I’m the man. Gonna earn a spot on this team! I can run with the big dogs! Hell yeah! Woof woof woof! Cowher’s voice screamed in agreement.
Then the road in front of me cracked and split down its length, right between the painted yellow lines. From out of the road bed arose a hundred foot long viper, an expression of the Kobra Kult’s zeal for destruction.
Later investigations revealed that the Rockingham County facility was constructed to raise giant serpents for the cult, and that our presence had forced the scientists to activate a specimen ahead of schedule for protection. Through a combination of gravity dilation, genetic engineering, and cybernetics, the cult had transformed what should have been a foot-and-a-half long Agkistrodon contortrix into a sky-darkening monster.
According to a few herpetologists and xenozoologists of my acquaintence, mutating the snake to such a size was quite an achievement. That being said, similar work had been done in Spain three years prior with a Vipera aspis, though the Spanish reptile was not enlarged to the same degree.
At the moment of the snake’s emergence, little of this xenobiology, herpetology, or Spanish scientific history was known to me. Instead, I thought “Holy crap. Big snake.”
The snake shook its head to throw off clods of dirt and asphalt.
The football coach voice in my head screamed again. “NOW! DO IT NOW!”
A blur of notions flew through my mind, none of them clear. Then a single idea popped into my helmeted head, something I recalled from my weeks of perusing the archives. Aquaman was a hundred meters to my rear. Green Lantern was a half-kilometer above. Of course!
Gripped by a sense of purpose, I activated my Justice League transciever. I knew what to do.
I bellowed into it, “MANEUVER DELTA NINE-FOUR! DELTA NINE-FOUR!”
Expecting that, as per the maneuver, the Lantern would swoop down and restrain the beast with a ring construct and that Aquaman would close in to attack. I undertook my responsibility in the tactic: distract the beast long enough for the others to get in position. I cocked my fist back to punch the snake in the side.
I felt like Superman! Like a titan! Like a demigod!
I landed my blow with all the force my hefty frame could muster, accompanied by a lusty battle cry!
Later, I told my wife that my mighty blow scuffed a scale along the snake’s length. This was purely a salve to my vanity. For all the effect it had, I may as well have punched a boulder. In Beijing.
The snake looked down at me and hissed. It opened its jaws. A gullet wide enough to fit a school bus yawned above my head.
I felt a little less like Superman.
In my head, Moe Howard’s voice returned. “You knucklehead…”
From Chapter Nineteen, “Postgame Chili”
Scents of chili powder, meat, and beans mingled and reached my nose. I could not yet bring myself to put a spoon into the bowl. Instead, I stared at it and wondered when my sense of foolishness would lessen. Or the dull throb in my head. The rest of the League did not share my hesitation and partook of Green Arrow’s chili and other dishes in an informal going-away party for their newest recruit, the Chromium Pugilist.
The mission was not a failure; Rockingham County was saved in short order. Green Lantern and Aquaman had taken care of the giant serpent and shut down the Kobra facility. Though none of it was accomplished by following my shouted instruction.
Maneuver Delta Nine-Four, I remembered upon returning to the satellite, required that I fly at faster-than-light-speed in circles around the monster, opening a rift in time and sending it back in time to the Age of Dinosaurs, while the other Leaguers would fly into space to repel an alien invasion. Excepting the Batman, who would be in charge of locating large supplies of quicklime. Not the best maneuver for the situation, in retrospect. In my panic, I had conflated it with “Maneuver Four.” Maneuver Four could be summarized accurately as “get the big monster.”
That the Leaguers chose not to bring up the gaffe was something I appreciated. It would have been a gross overstatement to say that I felt any sense of camaraderie with the Leaguers, but they were polite and friendly enough that I felt less of a fraud among them than I had any right to expect.
Over time I recovered myself well enough to partake of the chili and join my “teammates” in conversation. Green Lantern used his power ring to show me the giant baseball mitt he’d constructed to catch my body as I arced across the Virginia sky. “What model is it?” I asked.
“McGregor. Willie Mays autograph,” he replied. The green mitt rotated in the air to show the star-pattern of leather between the thumb and index finger, as well as a replica Willie Mays autograph below the middle two fingers.
Green Arrow clicked his tongue. “When he catches me, he always uses the Rawlings Cal Ripken model. You got Mays?”
“The Pugilist here still owes me money from foosball,” Lantern replied. “You, I can drop. But Harvey here needs to stay intact. Until I get my ten bucks.”
I mingled with the other Leaguers, and a few expressed regret that we hadn’t “teamed up” on my one mission. Superman noted that his best friend, Jimmy Olsen, was perpetually facing situations like mine, and that he proved to be of great help on occasions. “When he wasn’t turning into a giant turtle or getting married to a gorilla,” he added.
Wonder Woman smiled and offered me a position as her new sidekick, explaining that her life would benefit from the addition of gorilla-marrying turtle men. I turned her down, explaining that my marriage, though strong, would be sorely tested by any major mutations to my physical form or engaging in bigamy with a lower primate. Wonder Woman suggested that I consult with my wife regardless. “You never know,” she said.
Two hours into the dinner, I was feeling better about the whole affair. The Leaguers had accepted me with varying degrees of warmth, the chili was delicious, and I’d persuaded everyone present to autograph my badly-dented helmet. I sat in a chair and reflected upon the experience.
Until the Batman crashed in. I had noticed his absence earlier, but paid little attention. He was a busy man, I knew, and he had little time for frivolities such as a going-away party for a journalist. When he arrived, I halfway expected him to ignore me. He did not. He stalked straight towards me.
His body language was clear: he was angry. Standing a yard in front of me, he began a tirade. “You put the lives of Aquaman and Green Lantern at risk by your stupid stunt! To write a book, you jeapordized a mission against a major super-villain!” He stabbed his finger at me. “Who the hell are you to do this?”
The accusations burst out, one after another, in a staccato fashion: That I was a dilettente in an arena that demanded dedication. That I was lucky to be alive, and that in a more just world, I would have been devoured by a giant snake. That my presence made a mockery of the brave and noble people who risked their lives to protect others.
Gothamites speak in awed whispers about the Batman’s ability to inspire fear and to intimidate. They say he could terrify the dead. They understate him. It's much worse. Being on the receiving end of his invective was no less terrifying than facing the jaws of the giant copperhead the day before.
I tried to formulate sentences in my head to rebut his accusations, but none would form. His bullying manner worked too quickly. I could not speak. Even the other members of the League were silent. He ranted on.
An aside: raffinose is a complex carbohydrate, a trisaccharide composed of galactose, fructose, and glucose. It is also known as melitose, and may be thought of as galactose + sucrose connected via an alpha(1-6) glycosidic linkage. Due to this structure, raffinose can be broken apart into galactose and sucrose via the enzyme alpha-galactosidase. Unfortunately, human intestines do not contain that particular enzyme.
A common delivery vector for raffinose in the human diet is the legume. Specifically, beans. Raffinose, undigested by the enzymes of the stomach, passes intact into the intestines, where locally-residing bacteria devour it instead. Byproducts of this activity include hydrogen, carbon dioxide, occasionally methane, and a few sulfurous gases.
Green Arrow’s chili was loaded with kidney beans. I had devoured three bowls.
Thus my attention was forced to divide. Three-quarters of my mind was caught up in the Batman’s accusations. It struggled to rally in self-defense, it weighed the justice of his attacks, it shuddered in fear. The remaining quarter fixated on the sudden and dangerous distension of my digestive tract by expanding gases. Moment by moment, the percentages of concentration shifted towards the growing bloat in my midsection and away from the haranguing vigilante.
Within seconds, I ceased to hear the Batman. My consciousness was lost to the intestinal struggles. Then my willpower won out, and the gas pressure retreated. Once again I could hear the voice of the Batman. “This is a deadly serious business!” he bellowed.
A light squeal interrupted him. I bit my lip as the squeal deepened, gaining richness and volume. I had lost my battle.
The irregularities of the escaping gas created hesitations and sudden pitch changes in the sound. How long it continued, I do not know. Were I to hazard a guess, I would place the event in the six-to-nine hour range. From my perspective, it felt no less than that.
At last, it ceased. Quiet returned to the dining hall. The Batman, struck dumb by my bout of flatulence, resumed his complaints. Only to be overwhelmed again by the first delicate, then thunderous roar of my bowels. The second bout lasted as long as the first, if not longer. Finally, it too stopped.
The Batman did not speak. He gathered his thoughts, then left the dining hall without another word.
Seconds after the door closed behind the outraged Batman, Green Arrow offered me a full-time position in the League.
From Chapter Twenty-One, “Home Again”
I type this in my home office. The autographs of most of the Justice League decorate my dented chrome helmet, which sits on my desk. To my joy, several members of the League have kept in touch since my disasterous outing. Wonder Woman repeated her offer to take me on as sidekick. My wife, as I predicted, threatened me with divorce should I take the job.
“I accepted ‘for better or for worse,’ not ‘for human or devolved into australopithicus,’” she said. Not wishing to argue, nor to be killed by angry super-villains, I acceded to my wife’s wishes.
All is back to normal, save for one thing. The interior of my car has acquired a funk that I cannot explain. Foulness hangs in the air to such a degree that I can feel beads of stench collect on my tongue when I breathe. Cleaning the car interior twice did nothing. The source remains mysterious.